Imagine you’re preparing for a school debate. It’s been weeks in the making, and you’re nervous. All your friends are watching, and the issue is both important and complicated: the impact of UK aid. You step up to the microphone, and smash it out of the park. Case made, cue applause.
Suddenly, Bill Gates turns up.
The international philanthropist arrived in secret to watch the debate between schools from Leeds and London on the impact of UK aid, battling over the notion that "This House Believes That, for People in Developing Countries, the World is Getting Better."
Read More: This is How UK Aid Empowers Girls Around the World
The event was hosted by Comic Relief in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Debate Mate, an organisation that runs after-school debating clubs in areas of high child poverty. In the audience, 250 British schoolchildren watched their passionate peers clash on some of the toughest issues facing their generation. Nobody knew that Gates was waiting in the wings.
Room is PACKED for the #BigDebate with @gatesfoundation@comicrelief@Debate_Mate. Today, young people talk. We listen 👂 ⭕️ pic.twitter.com/Q9g7PAqwYS— Global Citizen UK (@GlblCtznUK) April 20, 2017
They weren’t the only ones admiring the incredible young talent on show — celebrity judges turned up in force. Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow, SBTV founder Jamal Edwards MBE, BBC journalist Tina Daheley, and multi-Academy Award and Golden Globe winning actress Emma Thompson were studiously taking notes on the sidelines throughout.
“Knowledge is like a diary. It’s a record of discovery,” said George the Poet, a London-based artist, introducing the debate with a short performance. “With a little help and wisdom young people can be self sufficient.”
The debate was hosted by Strictly Come Dancing star Ore Oduba, who promised a “cheeky nandos” to the winning team. After the competition, Oduba announced that a surprise guest wanted to talk to them all, as the judges left the room to mull over the result. Eye of the Tiger played over the speakers, and the crowd gasped as Gates took the stage to talk about hope.
Read More: Why Brexit Is a Wake-Up Call for Young People
Gates spoke about an optimistic future in the mission to end extreme poverty, and took several questions from the audience. One student asked him about his foundation’s greatest achievement.
“The biggest success we’ve had is in getting new vaccines… to kids all around the world,” Gates answered. “We’re hoping this is the last year any kid gets polio.”
Wow!— Comic Relief (@comicrelief) April 20, 2017
Look who's been listening to the whole #BigDebate backstage - @BillGates! pic.twitter.com/GjCuuFzfgx
UK aid has generated a heated discussion as parties prepare to release their election manifestos in the run up to the June 8 vote. Right now, aid spending is protected in law at 0.7% of Gross National Income — a vital safeguard that saves a life every two minutes all over the world.
"Britain should be praised, not ridiculed, for sticking to this commitment," Gates said in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute on April 19. "It was a well-considered decision that sets an example for other wealthy Western countries. It also is visible proof of the UK's goodwill and humanity.”
"Withdrawing aid would cost lives — which is reason enough to continue it," he added. "But it would also create a leadership vacuum that others will fill, undermining the UK's influence in these regions."
Read More: Melinda Gates Is Fighting Trump's Foreign Aid Cuts
“It’s part of our capacity and our identity in the world,” Emma Thompson told Global Citizen after the debate. “The least we can do is to honour our commitments to (the Sustainable Development Goals) — 0.7% is nothing.”
“The most important thing for young people is education,” Jamal Edwards, founder of SBTV, told us. “The young people of today are the future leaders of tomorrow… I feel like now, more people are switched on than they were at the last elections. They’ve seen what’s happening in the world and they want to get involved.”
Take Action: Call on Every UK Party Leader to Stand for a Britain that Is Open, Equal and Compassionate
Ayo, from Robert Clack School, Dagenham, was the final speaker in the debate, and embodies exactly what Edwards wants to see in a passionately proactive young generation — the kind of engaged millennial he urged to “be in control” of their own future. “My family has always been into speaking, and putting yourself out there — having an impact on the world,” she told Global Citizen, with a winner’s medal hung around her neck. “(UK Aid) is really good. It’s helpful for people if you want to get better.”
It doesn’t matter whether you’re studying for your GSCEs or creating the world the curriculum is based on — billionaire or Bafta winner, UK aid is the right thing to do. But more than anything, what was remarkable at this debate was where the spotlight landed. Gates didn’t steal the show. How could he, when all eyes were on the swashbuckling debaters who will undoubtedly be the next names on the ballot paper in years to come? Roll over, Beethoven. The future is in town.
Disclosure: Bill Gates is the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a funding partner of Global Citizen.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated to include a disclosure that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen. We regret the oversight.